Here is a parent’s guide to the essentials of STEM. It includes answers to
- what is it?
- how does it look practically?
- what does this mean for preschool aged children?
- how is Australia tackling STEM learning in the early years?
Now you might think: why do I care though?
Well, the ‘buzz’ surrounding STEM continues to grow exponentially. It is increasingly being used in everyday language. There are activities and toys for STEM all around us. Plus you see it being implemented at younger and younger ages.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It is a description of several fields that combine together to form the commonly used acronym STEM. Some variations on the traditional STEM notation are increasingly being evident and include:
- STEAM – Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
- STEMM – Science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
Most people have an opinion of these topics from their own experiences and how they were taught at primary or secondary school. Both the good and the bad memories are often recollected. This can sway how we pass on our love (or hate) about these fields to our children. It is important to approach STEM learning for preschoolers as a fun and playful activity to begin to instil their curiosity in this area.
So, let’s break down the components of what STEM really is. The examples given in each section are by no means an exhaustive list, it is just designed to get you thinking about the concepts themselves.
What is it?
Science is the formulation of outcomes based on testing an idea or question. It involves the following of a method to test the idea and then the subsequent evaluation of the outcome.
What does science look like at the preschool age?
Science at this age looks like curiosity, experimentation, questioning and trialling. In other words, kids need to see and experience what happens when they do something. They need to learn about cause and effect as well as being able to offer predictions of an outcome.
The ice-cube challenge: An ice-cube can be used as an example at this level. The question is: If I touch this ice-cube will it be hot or cold? Thinking about the answer to this question is hypothesising a particular event and outcome. Older children will likely be able to communicate with you what they predict and then give you a result like ‘cold’ once they touch it. In younger children who do not have the language yet, they will probably not be able to articulate a prediction, but will likely pull away when they touch it.
Common science activities for preschoolers:
- Colour mixing with paints
- Observing that water freezes into ice when cold and then melts when it is warmed
- The creation of a ‘volcano’ with bicarb soda and vinegar
- Observing the lifecycle of plants and/or animals ie a caterpillar becomes a butterfly or a tadpole develops into a frog
- Sink or float tests of objects in water
What is it?
Technology is considered tools that give the user augmentation, assistance or advancement. Most commonly, technology is thought of as electronics like computers, phones and calculators. These do indeed come under the banner of technology. However, this field can be thought of much more broadly to encompass any tool which assists the user.
What does technology look like at the preschool age?
At a preschool age, it can relate to computers, ipads and phones. These days most preschoolers are exposed to electronic devices by their parents and some even have ‘play’ models that they use. But technology spans much further in this age group. It really relates to anything that assists them in some manner and can include ‘simple’ items such as scissors, a hammer and pencils.
Common technology activities for preschoolers:
- Cutting up paper
- Looking at things through a hand-held magnifying glass
- Digging with a shovel or spade
- Using utensils like a spoon to eat food
What is it?
Engineering is the creation of something to solve a particular problem. It usually involves tangible products like buildings, engines, software and devices. It involves a lot of analysis to find out how things work and how to improve on performance or design.
What does engineering look like at the preschool age?
Most people think of engineering at this age in relation to building and construction. It can be the building of a block tower, building of a train set or building with lego. It includes these types of constructions with instructions or without.
The sticky challenge: Engineering also relates to finding solutions to a particular problem. If a child has cut out a picture from paper and wants to stick it onto cardboard, part of finding a solution to this problem is related to basic engineering principles. They may not have any sticky tape left. It is up to the child to see whether they can find another medium to make the paper stick to the cardboard such as glue or blue-tack.
Engineering at this age also includes pulling things apart to see how they work or to look at individual components. So when all of your toys are consistently being pulled apart it might be because of the curiosity of the young engineer at work.
Common engineering activities for preschoolers:
- Building with blocks or lego/duplo
- Folding of paper into planes and flying different designs
- Making boats with different shaped sails
- Building train tracks
What is it?
Mathematics is the description of the world using mathematical symbols or notations such as numbers. Mathematics can be considered a fundamental tool that is applied in the other STEM disciplines.
What does mathematics look like at the preschool age?
Mathematics at the preschool age is all about numbers, quantities, relationships and being able to identify these things. It involves learning the fundamentals of numbers and sequencing as well as the language used in this discipline.
Common mathematics activities for preschoolers:
- Identifying numbers and counting
- Identifying items in size order ie that block is larger/smaller than that one
- Identifying items in length order ie that string is longer/shorter than that one
- Adding and subtracting items away from each other
- Filling items such as cups with different volumes of a liquid such as water
How is Australia tackling STEM in preschoolers?
The Australian Government has a national standard for teaching at the pre-school age called the Early Years Framework. It is an extensive document outlining ways for children to have a sense of belonging, becoming and being with guidelines on what each of these mean. It was commissioned by the Government and put together in collaboration with expert early learning educators and researchers.
These guidelines are not specific to just STEM learning at preschool, rather they are all encompassing of learning at this age. The STEM related content is on page 36-40 of the pdf.
Most centers implement this strategy for their teaching. However, it is up to the individual educator and teams to decide what the activities will look like in their teaching to convey the basic principles. Thus, there is a wide variety of interpretations of these principles around Australia. However, it is interesting to see how the teaching of STEM principles is becoming more important even at this early age.
This is a quick outline of the essentials of STEM learning at a preschool age. It includes what it means, what it looks like in this age group and how it is often implemented. It is really a starting point to work from when talking about STEM as applied to early learning.